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As Republicans in Congress criticize Rice and the administration over the response to the attack in Benghazi, there is a new face in the lead: Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. She is just two years into her first term, but this week she stood side by side with long-time senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in questioning the administration's version of events. As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, Ayotte is seen as a rising female star in a party struggling to win women voters.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: For McCain and Graham, the main focus in the Benghazi story has been U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Standing with them throughout has been Senator Ayotte. The trio accuses Rice of misleading the public in statements she made on television in the days following the attack. They are especially troubled that she is the leading contender to become U.S. secretary of state. This week, after a closed door meeting with Ambassador Rice, the trio was unsatisfied.

SENATOR KELLY AYOTTE: I want to say that I'm more troubled today, knowing, having met with the acting director of the CIA and Ambassador Rice because...

GONYEA: Senator Ayotte said Rice should have called it an al-Qaida attack from the beginning.

AYOTTE: And clearly, the impression that was given, the information given to the American people was wrong. In fact...

GONYEA: For many Americans, Ayotte is a brand-new face. Her 2010 campaign was the 44-year-old native of Nashua, New Hampshire's first run for elective office. She was frequently seen this year with presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

AYOTTE: With that, it's my pleasure to introduce the next president of the United States, Mitt Romney.

GONYEA: Senator Ayotte campaigned for Romney in battleground states and on TV, and was rewarded with this kind of buzz.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, is she or isn't she? New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte continues to be reportedly on Mitt Romney's short list of possible running mates.

GONYEA: Ayotte was also among the women featured at this summer's Republican National Convention. She has been a fiscal and social conservative. Political scientist Dante Scala at the University of New Hampshire says that differentiates her from two women who represent neighboring Maine in the U.S. Senate.

DANTE SCALA: Back in 2010, that was the comparison. Oh, she's a Republican and she's a woman and she's from New England, so she's going to be like Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe. But she took a much different path.

GONYEA: Scala says, Ayotte, a former state attorney general, may not be a natural politician, often seeming uneasy during speeches, but he also notes she's the mother of two and married to an Iraq war vet. She is also one of only four women who will serve as Republicans in the new Senate, which will have 16 women Democrats. Here's her colleague, Senator Graham.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Yeah, I think she's going to become a real Margaret Thatcher-like voice for us on national security. And I think Democrats will probably gravitate to working with her because she is smart.

GONYEA: Peter Burling is the New Hampshire Democratic Party official who reacts this way to Ayotte's high-profile role as a critic of Ambassador Rice.

PETER BURLING: My initial reaction has been impatience and annoyance.

GONYEA: He says Ayotte, McCain and Graham are leveling charges that have no basis in fact. Further, he says, Ayotte's very conservative politics are at odds with voters in her own state where she is the only Republican in the new congressional delegation.

BURLING: In some ways, she's either made a decision to ignore her local constituency in pursuit of a national place or she is being managed by somebody who hasn't pointed out to her that her voters want her to do something else.

GONYEA: Ayotte faces re-election in 2016. New Hampshire politics make it difficult to predict whether she'll have a lengthy career. But that doesn't dim the current prominence that she's chosen to embrace or discourage talk about potentially larger ambitions down the road. Don Gonyea. NPR News, Washington.

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